BF-3, a short take-off and vertical landing F-35 Lightning II, releases an inert 1,000 lb. GBU-32 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) separation weapon over water in an Atlantic test range in Patuxent River, Maryland August 8, 2012. REUTERS/Andy Wolfe/Lockheed Martin/Handout(reuters_tickers)
By Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen and Tim Hepher
COPENHAGEN/PARIS (Reuters) - Denmark's government will recommend the purchase of at least 27 F-35 stealth fighters built by U.S. weapons maker Lockheed Martin Corp, people familiar with the matter said on Wednesday.
Denmark would be the 11th country to buy the radar-evading jets, joining the United States, Britain, Australia, Turkey, Italy, Norway, the Netherlands, Israel, South Korea and Japan.
The selection by Denmark's minority Liberal government follows intense public debate about the cost of modernising the country's air force, but it can still be blocked by parliament, where opposition politicians are urging budget restraint.
Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen called a press briefing for Thursday at 0800 GMT on the issue, but the government declined further comment.
The recommendation, first reported by Denmark's TV2 News, will be followed by a public comment period of 30 days, said one of the people, who was not authorised to speak publicly. The final number of jets could shift during this period.
If confirmed, the decision will mark a setback for Boeing, another U.S. weapons maker that mounted an expensive last-ditch marketing effort for its older F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, and the four-nation Eurofighter Typhoon consortium that includes Airbus Group.
News of the recommendation emerged as doubts were raised over a crucial parliamentary committee hearing scheduled for Friday.
All three bidders have been invited to present their jets, but Denmark's Conservative Party said Lockheed and Boeing had been told by Washington not to participate. A spokesman for the U.S. embassy confirmed they had been advised to stay away.
Airbus Group said it still planned to attend and called for a "healthy and transparent" public debate.
Although viewed by many as an outside contender, Eurofighter appears to be gambling on parliamentary support for a European solution after a bitter spat between U.S. rivals. The German government is expected to throw its weight behind the bid by sending defence state secretary Katrin Suder to give evidence.
At approximately $100 million per jet plus infrastructure and spares, the F-35 is the most expensive of the three planes being considered after cost overruns and delays.
The United States says that will fall to about $85 million per plane by 2019.
Some of Denmark's biggest parties including the Social Democrats have raised concerns about the economic impact of fighter purchases at a time of spending pressures.
Lockheed, Boeing and Airbus said they had not received any official notification from the Danish government. The Pentagon's F-35 programme office had no immediate comment.
Denmark is one of eight original partners that helped fund development of the F-35 and flies Lockheed F-16 jets alongside Belgium, Norway and the Netherlands.
Its decision is being watched worldwide as several other nations prepare to decide how to renew fleets. Lockheed is chasing further deals in Canada and elsewhere.
(Additional reporting by Reuters Newsrooms; Editing by Alexander Smith)